No Comment — November 8, 2007, 6:19 am

Change or Continuity for Turkmenistan?

Mecca, New York and now Brussels – Turkmenistan’s new president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is on an unprecedented (for Turkmenistan) world tour to get to know the movers and shakers in the world’s power centers. A stream of international leaders and delegations has visited his isolated capital, Ashgabat, not previously on the diplomatic circuit.

But feting him as the new Gorbachev bringing openness and restructuring to his repressive and isolated country would be wrong. When the veteran autocrat Saparmurat Niyazov died unexpectedly last December, all of Turkmenistan was hoping the nightmare of stifling control, vindictive repression and a grotesque cult of personality would be over. Hopes were high that Berdymukhamedov would usher in wide-ranging change.

People were prepared to forgive him that he was installed in behind-the-scenes machinations that avoided the nation’s constitutional order of succession. The people, of course, had nothing to say about it. Still, they were prepared to forgive him for being part of the repressive regime of the past. Turnout at the election that endorsed his power was genuinely impressive. Enthusiastic voters even used the reverse side of the ballot paper to give him ideas on how he should reform the country.

As announcement followed announcement – the restoration of a tenth year of school education, wider access to the internet, removal of travel restrictions and the many checkpoints that scarred the country – citizens dared to hope that a page had been turned. Unlike his infirm predecessor, Berdymukhamedov – like Gorbachev in the 1980s – is relatively youthful and dynamic. He appeared open.

Yet the honeymoon was short-lived. Citizens feared a return to a cult of personality with the reemergence of presidential portraits in April. Portraits were displayed in all schools at the beginning of the school year on 1 September. Books by and about him started to appear. It became clear that Berdymukhamedov pays close attention to how his image is promoted around the country.

Yes, some 9000 prisoners were freed in a mass amnesty in October, but that was a policy already introduced by Niyazov. Many of those freed had to swear their repentance and the oath of loyalty to Berdymukhamedov publicly. So no change there. Many local people were horrified that serious offenders like drug-traffickers with 20 year sentences were freed less than a year after being imprisoned. Such arbitrary releases do little for law and order.

Internet access turned out to be neither as easy nor as cheap as many had hoped. Those internet cafes allowed to open remain expensive and underused.

The blacklist of those banned from leaving the country remains, even though exit visas have been abolished. Flights to Moscow and Almaty are routinely delayed as the secret police check through the would-be passengers. Indeed, it is often only at the airport that people discover they are on the secret blacklist.

Religious communities, NGOs and trade unions have not been set free of stifling control. Government-organised public organisations have mushroomed, doing what local people describe as “quasi-activity” on social issues in a “quasi-independent” manner. But they suffer from a lack of will to change the situation and constant rotation of their leaders.

Teachers and other lower-ranking government officials are forced to toil in the cotton fields – often unpaid – if they are not to face dismissal. They leave children untaught and specialist work undone.

One of the biggest bugbears – Niyazov’s abolition of pensions for many pensioners – was reversed, but not properly. Many who are entitled to pensions do not yet receive them again and Berdymukhamedov’s proclaimed increase has not been given. Even those of working age lucky enough to have jobs still face delays in receiving their often-meager salaries.

More fundamentally, the secret police and the ordinary police have not lost their power. People remain afraid.

So it turns out that “humanisation” – the president’s own word – of society was to be strictly limited. Berdymukhamedov is no Gorbachev bringing the Soviet Union out of its isolation, repression and decay. Nor is he a King Juan Carlos bringing Spain out of Franco’s dictatorship into the modern world.

The Turkmen people are still excluded from the political process – that remains the preserve of the nation’s shadowy elite and, at its top, Berdymukhamedov. Those in Ashgabat who have tried to contribute to the birth of a public debate of future policy have been slapped down. Government politicians have declared privately that no amendments are planned to any of the restrictive laws on trade-union or non-governmental organisation activity. No fundamental legal changes have been instituted to improve the climate for small business. The outdated methodology of school teaching remains unchanged. One chemistry teacher in a remote region bewails the continuing use of Soviet-era chemistry textbooks (though at least they are free of Niyazov propaganda, unlike many recent textbooks in other subjects).

While the people of Turkmenistan have had long enough to realise that Berdymukhamedov is not the answer to their problems and will not reform the fundamentals of the autocratic system he inherited from Niyazov, the international community remains alarmingly willing to take the new president’s claims and promises at face value.

Yes, a succession of international delegations has visited Ashgabat. Yes Berdymukhamedov has reversed the isolationist policy of his predecessors. But he has not engaged on substantive reform. Tellingly, all these trips have been get-to-know-you meetings. Those wanting to discuss serious issues have been rebuffed. When United Nations Human Rights Commissioner visited Ashgabat officials denied to her face the many human rights violations so visible to all.

Yes, the world has to get to know Berdymukhamedov. But more important he has to get to know his own people before he presents any ideas he might have to the outside world and the outside world also needs to get to know the people of Turkmenistan and what they need to see changed. Turkmenistan’s people need to come in from the cold.

Felix Corley and Rachel Denber contributed to this post.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2018

The Bodies in The Forest

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Minds of Others

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Modern Despots

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Before the Deluge

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Notes to Self

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Within Reach

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Pushing the Limit·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the early Eighties, Andy King, the coach of the Seawolves, a swim club in Danville, California, instructed Debra Denithorne, aged twelve, to do doubles — to practice in the morning and the afternoon. King told Denithorne’s parents that he saw in her the potential to receive a college scholarship, and even to compete in the Olympics. Tall swimmers have an advantage in the water, and by the time Denithorne turned thirteen, she was five foot eight. She dropped soccer and a religious group to spend more time at the pool.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
The Minds of Others·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Progress is impossible without change,” George Bernard Shaw wrote in 1944, “and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” But progress through persuasion has never seemed harder to achieve. Political segregation has made many Americans inaccessible, even unimaginable, to those on the other side of the partisan divide. On the rare occasions when we do come face-to-face, it is not clear what we could say to change each other’s minds or reach a worthwhile compromise. Psychological research has shown that humans often fail to process facts that conflict with our preexisting worldviews. The stakes are simply too high: our self-worth and identity are entangled with our beliefs — and with those who share them. The weakness of logic as a tool of persuasion, combined with the urgency of the political moment, can be paralyzing.

Yet we know that people do change their minds. We are constantly molded by our environment and our culture, by the events of the world, by the gossip we hear and the books we read. In the essays that follow, seven writers explore the ways that persuasion operates in our lives, from the intimate to the far-reaching. Some consider the ethics and mechanics of persuasion itself — in religion, politics, and foreign policy — and others turn their attention to the channels through which it acts, such as music, protest, and technology. How, they ask, can we persuade others to join our cause or see things the way we do? And when it comes to our own openness to change, how do we decide when to compromise and when to resist?

Illustration (detail) by Lincoln Agnew
Article
Within Reach·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a balmy day last spring, Connor Chase sat on a red couch in the waiting room of a medical clinic in Columbus, Ohio, and watched the traffic on the street. His bleached-blond hair fell into his eyes as he scrolled through his phone to distract himself. Waiting to see Mimi Rivard, a nurse practitioner, was making Chase nervous: it would be the first time he would tell a medical professional that he was transgender.

By the time he arrived at the Equitas Health clinic, Chase was eighteen, and had long since come to dread doctors and hospitals. As a child, he’d had asthma, migraines, two surgeries for a tumor that had caused deafness in one ear, and gangrene from an infected bug bite. Doctors had always assumed he was a girl. After puberty, Chase said, he avoided looking in the mirror because his chest and hips “didn’t feel like my body.” He liked it when strangers saw him as male, but his voice was high-pitched, so he rarely spoke in public. Then, when Chase was fourteen, he watched a video on YouTube in which a twentysomething trans man described taking testosterone to lower his voice and appear more masculine. Suddenly, Chase had an explanation for how he felt — and what he wanted.

Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Before the Deluge·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the summer of 2016, when Congress installed a financial control board to address Puerto Rico’s crippling debt, I traveled to San Juan, the capital. The island owed some $120 billion, and Wall Street was demanding action. On the news, President Obama announced his appointments to the Junta de Supervisión y Administración Financiera. “The task ahead for Puerto Rico is not an easy one,” he said. “But I am confident Puerto Rico is up to the challenge of stabilizing the fiscal situation, restoring growth, and building a better future for all Puerto Ricans.” Among locals, however, the control board was widely viewed as a transparent effort to satisfy mainland creditors — just the latest tool of colonialist plundering that went back generations.

Photograph from Puerto Rico by Christopher Gregory
Article
Monumental Error·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1899, the art critic Layton Crippen complained in the New York Times that private donors and committees had been permitted to run amok, erecting all across the city a large number of “painfully ugly monuments.” The very worst statues had been dumped in Central Park. “The sculptures go as far toward spoiling the Park as it is possible to spoil it,” he wrote. Even worse, he lamented, no organization had “power of removal” to correct the damage that was being done.

Illustration by Steve Brodner

Cost of a baby-stroller cleaning, with wheel detailing, at Tot Squad in New York City:

$119.99

Australian biologists trained monitor lizards not to eat cane toads.

Trump tweeted that he had created “jobs, jobs, jobs” since becoming president, and it was reported that Trump plans to bolster job creation by loosening regulations on the global sale of US-made artillery, warships, fighter jets, and drones.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today